How to Shoot a Film in a Global Pandemic
If you’re going to get stuck shooting a film in a global pandemic, it helps if you’re already pretty much self-quarantined in a beach resort and living off product-placement steak, wine and coffee. That’s the situation I found myself in on my film, 18½, which we started shooting in early March, 2020. What could possibly go wrong?
Foot Bumps and Elbow Knocks
18½ is a 70s-era Watergate conspiracy thriller/dark comedy we were filming in Greenport, New York, which is on the tip of the North Fork of Long Island (“Nawth Fawk,” as it’s known locally), about three hours from Manhattan, or a couple ferry rides north of the Hamptons. Our cast and crew all stayed at the Silver Sands Motel and Cottages, run by my producing partner Terry Keefe, a 30-acre complex on the beach, about a 20-minute walk from town. We had a 15-day shoot scheduled, with a couple days off, with most of the days filming on the Silver Sands property itself. The cast and crew all had their own rooms and there was plenty of extra cottage space for hair, wardrobe, props and group meals. We’d brought all our equipment in from New York City, the weather was picture-perfect and everyone was getting along great. It was literally a textbook example of how to shoot an indie feature film! (I know, because I wrote the textbook.)
And honestly, it was fun! We immersed ourselves in this historic-fiction story of a Nixon transcriber leaking the 18½- minute Nixon tape to a reporter. As mentioned, we all stayed at the Silver Sands, which Terry’s grandparents had built in the 50s, and which Terry has maintained as a mid-century time capsule. Still a very busy resort in the summers, Terry often rents out the Silver Sands for fashion still shoots, music videos and episodics. But with the motel closed in the winter, ours was the first feature that had ever shot there, not least because because my writing/producing partner Daniel Moya and I had written the script around the location. In addition to meals brought in from local restaurants, we’d arranged for product-placement steaks and veggie burgers from my old friends at Omaha Steaks, coffee (from Conscious Coffee in Boulder, Colorado), local North Fork pinot noir (McCall’s Wine), RedBull, Celestial Seasonings tea, homemade cookies my mom sent from Omaha, and Girl Scout cookies my daughter sent from LA.
Being able to stay and shoot a film in one beautiful location was a luxury. We never had to worry about cast or crew getting tired driving home. At nights, we celebrated the career successes of our lead actors: The season finale airing of Dare Me for Willa Fitzgerald, and we toasted John Magaro, on the opening weekend of his new Kelly Reichardt film, First Cow for A24. We shot for one day in Daniel’s aunt and uncle’s converted railcar diner, the Front Street Station. We filmed on the ferry to Shelter Island, and a local couple let us use their bright red 1969 Dodge Dart “Swinger” in exchange for a couple nights at the motel. It was community indie filmmaking in the best sense possible.
Of course, there were plenty of run-of-the-mill challenges along the way. We were still doing some casting a week into shooting. The logistics of moving all this equipment and crew from New York was a nightmare to coordinate. And of course, we were still desperately (and successfully) raising money to make it through the shoot. But we were overcoming all those obstacles with lets-put-on-a-show grit and gumption! We were getting great performances, the footage looked and sounded amazing, and the ’70s-period costumes and production design felt like a million bucks’ worth of production value. Director of photography Elle Schneider was nimbly zooming our vintage lenses (courtesy of AbelCine), production designer Monica Dabrowski built a spiral staircase and amassed an impression collection of working reel-to-reel players, and costume designer Sarah Cogan was up all nights sewing new costumes to vintage patterns. We were knocking out 11-page days and four-minute oners like a well-oiled machine, staying (mostly) on schedule and (more-or-less) under budget.
We weren’t completely oblivious to the coronavirus pandemic. I remember the week before shooting, on my flight to New York, watching President Trump on CNN say there were only 15 cases in the US and the virus would magically disappear! Naturally, that made me nervous. Lockdowns were already well underway in China and Italy. There were a smattering of people on the plane wearing masks, and I did have the good sense to buy a couple little packs of hand sanitizer. It was only a matter of time before the pandemic took root in the US, but I figured we’d be wrapped and I’d be safely back home in LA editing the film long before that happened.
At the end of our first week of shooting, we had a scheduled day off, and had given everyone the option of driving back to New York City for the day. By this point, whispers of coronavirus hitting New York had started, so only about a third of the crew ventured into the city. The rest of us hunkered down at the Silver Sands, and went shopping in Greenport for a big BBQ that night. It happened to be a giant super-moon that evening, so our intrepid camera assistant Kerri McConnell and gaffer Yaniv Glaser grabbed the camera and (powered by grilled Omaha Steaks and heavy metal tunes), they shot some great B-roll footage of the moon reflecting over the Peconic Bay. Between the full moon and the looming dread of a pandemic, the crew started to chatter about werewolves, zombies and the inevitable discussions about which crew members we’d eat first if we were stranded there. If we hadn’t already barbecued so much triple-trimmed filet mignons that night, the key grip might have lost a leg.
With each day, we heard chatter about new events being cancelled. The NBA! South-by-Southwest! International flights! And through the production grapevine, we began to hear about TV shows and films delaying start dates or shutting down completely. Actress Cathy Curtin got word that Stranger Things, on which she has a recurring role, was shutting down. Of course, most of these were massive productions in the midst of urban centers, where crew and cast were commuting daily back to their homes. Their decisions were governed by multinational companies, armies of agents, legions of lawyers, and insurance companies sweating over risk management actuarial tables.
Our little troupe of 24 people had no such corporate overlords to answer to. Communally, we all felt about as safely self-quarantined as any production could be: We were far from any urban center, had almost no outside visitors, and were largely self-sufficient. The crew and cast unanimously believed we were probably safer on location, still working, than returning to our respective homes. We were doing a lot of things right, as it turned out: Telling people to use the bathrooms in their own rooms, incessant handwashing, sharing my tiny quantity of hand sanitizer with actors and crew, and keeping unwanted visitors away from set. This blissful determination kept us going well into our second week of shooting.
The DGA, the CDC and the ABCs of Shutting Down
On one of our last days of production, we did get one visit from our DGA rep from New York. She was so excited we were still shooting and lavished praise on our self-quarantined resilience. But I was struck by a few other things she said: She was the first person who introduced me to the term “social distancing.” And she told us we were one of the last remaining DGA productions still shooting in North America – there was one in Puerto Rico, and maybe one in Chicago. And that was it! Later that same day, we began to hear that actors that were scheduled for our last week of production were backing out because they were nervous about traveling. With our ’70s-based sets and costumes, we were starting to feel like some bizarro crossover episode of The Brady Bunch stuck on Gilligan’s Island.
With our last scheduled day off around the corner, we were reaching the time to make a critical decision. Keep plowing ahead with just four days to shoot in our last week, or pull the plug and take a “pandemic pause” (aka “healthy hiatus”)? Cast and crew were rightfully nervous: Loved ones back home were asking about us. Schools across the country were shutting down. And there was chatter in the air that domestic air travel and New York subways were on the verge of shutting down. Paranoia on set and in the town of Greenport was percolating as much as our fair-trade Colorado coffee. A vicious town dog bizarrely attacked one of our team members while they were on a walk. The grocery store clerk accused our assistant editor of having “the Vah-rus” and banished him for good. The exigencies of the outside world were starting to cave in on us, and shit was definitely getting weird.
We looked for guidance from the DGA and SAG-AFTRA, which all said to go by what the CDC and local health officials said. The CDC was still recommending that groups of under 50 people could gather in one room safely, so we were well within that range. But the writing was on the wall: Just days later, that number would drop to 10 and within a week, to zero.
I was ultimately responsible for the health and safety of the production, so in close consultation with my team, I decided the time had come to call it quits. That last “day off” became our wrap day. We whisked away our actors back to New York and the crew started packing things up for our vendors (what few of them were still open for returns). The overwhelmingly young crew was heartbroken – for most, this was the first time they’d been on a shoot that had been shut down in the middle of production. Even veteran actor/filmmaker Vondie Curtis Hall, one of our leads, had never had a film shut down midstream, but agreed this was the right decision at the right time. Everyone on the cast and crew vowed that we would return; somehow, someway.
As for me, I packed up our main editing hard drive (leaving two backups in the Tri-State Area) and was able to get a flight out of Islip, Long Island, back to LA the next day. The TSA told me two people had collapsed in the mostly deserted airport that day alone. Most of the other LA and New York crew made it home one way or another. I was comforted to know that at least we weren’t alone shutting down and facing an uncertain future. No less an indie film icon than Paul Schrader had just five days left to shoot his film, The Card Counter, when they shut down for Coronavirus. He publicly castigated his producers for making that decision and wrote on Facebook, “I would have shot through hellfire rain to complete the film. I’m old and asthmatic, what better way to die than on the job?”
The Show Must Go On
Terry, who owns the motel, very kindly offered to let anyone on the crew stay at the Silver Sands and ride out the pandemic for as long as they wanted. About a third of our crew members, mostly the single Brooklyn types, took him up on the offer and stayed for over two months. Five months into quarantine, one of them is still there (in what we’re now officially calling an “Artist-in-Residency”). This hearty group of survivors, the self-termed “Quaranteam,” included our cinematographer, production designer, costume designer, most of the camera crew and a PA. They subsisted on what was left of the production food: Steaks, hot dogs, hamburgers, veggie burgers, cookies, coffee and beer, as well as that which they gathered in cautious food runs into town. Product placement literally saved their lives – thank you, Omaha Steaks! They watched movies every night and rode out the pandemic the way most people did: Extended bouts of boredom punctuated by Netflix binges, daily walks and occasional spurts of creativity. Fortunately, they still had a camera, a vintage zoom lens, tripod and other basic production equipment. The Quaranteam wound up shooting two short films, a couple music videos, a webinar, and some extra B-roll exteriors and insert shots for 18½. Some of the rest of our cast and crew have even returned to the Silver Sands for extended quarantine retreats throughout the spring and summer.
The good news for us was that we’d already gotten about 80% of the film in the can. So, with plenty of time on my hands, I could edit throughout quarantine (when I wasn’t baking sourdough for my family everyday). Most of what we shot were stand-alone scenes and sequences in the film, which is to say, there weren’t a lot of gaps within scenes that we still needed to shoot. We could get close enough to locking the edits of those sequences that our composer, Luis Guerra (who worked with me on my last film, Bernard and Huey), could start working on our music. There’s one Brazilian-flavored bossa nova song that figures prominently in the film, and we’d written that during the script phase. Now that Luis and all the musicians he works with (from LA to Brazil) were stuck in their respective home studios during the pandemic, they were all chomping at the bit to get creative and work on the score and the full soundtrack.
As the title implies, a big part of the film has to do with the 18½-minute gap in the Nixon Watergate tapes that in large part led to his downfall. During production, my script supervisor (Tamara Hansen), writing/producing partner (Daniel Moya) and I recorded a scratch tape onto an iPhone to get the on-set timing right for our actors. In rehearsals, we’d play this recording live, so the actors could respond to dialogue cues from the tape, all while staring at a working reel-to-reel player playing a blank tape on a table. During takes, though, Daniel tucked himself behind a giant ’70s-TV on set, listened to the recording on headphones and shouted out short verbal cues to the actors as needed.
The plan was always to record the final tape with our “real” voice actors during post-production. Since we were able to shoot most of the scenes in the film where our characters are listening to the tape itself, we used our quarantine time to record the final version of the tape. Ironically, the pandemic has normalized stay-at-home recording for actors, so it was probably easier (and definitely cheaper) to do these sessions remotely. Instead of scheduling the actors to be in the same city and go to an expensive studio, we scheduled Zoom calls from wherever they were hunkered down. Simultaneous to the Zoom calls, we had the actors (Bruce Campbell as President Nixon, Jon Cryer as Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, Ted Raimi as Gen. Al Haig and Chris Quintos Cathcart as Rose Mary Woods) use mics and audio software to record “clean” versions of each take. Keep in mind that the sound quality of the original Nixon tapes is notoriously bad, so we didn’t need perfect, consistent audio fidelity for our tapes – in post, we’ll be futzing them all anyway. For example, Bruce used his computer and headphones for the Zoom call, but used an app (VoiceRecordPro) on his phone to record the “clean” takes. On the other hand, Jon used his phone for the Zoom, and a mic and software (TwistedWave) on his computer. Then the actors just emailed those high-quality .mp3 tracks to me, I sunc them up to the Zoom tracks, and we had ourselves an 18½-minute Nixon tape. Thank you, quarantine!
We were also lucky in that most of what we have left to shoot are either day interiors or night exteriors, which means we don’t have to worry as much about matching foliage with our March shoot. Regardless of if we return in late summer, fall or winter, we can make the scenes match without any problems. Also luckily, none of what we need to shoot involves any intimate or crowded scenes, so we don’t need to rewrite the script or use blow-up dolls for love scenes or CGI extras, as some productions are doing. Like everyone else in production, we’ve been waiting until it is safe and healthy to film again and we’re starting to pencil in a new schedule. It was one thing to be the last production standing, but we are in no rush to be the first ones back filming.
Of course, any shut-down involves added expenses and redundancies, not least of which the added costs for PPE, private meals and other Covid-related expenses. (So yes, we’re raising money all over again!) Fortunately, most of what we have left to shoot is back at the Silver Sands. That means many of the new DGA/SAG/New York State safety protocols (secluded shooting, self-quarantining, small crew, and zones of exclusion) are already applicable to shooting at our favorite Long Island motel complex. Almost the entire cast and crew are from New York, so I may be the only one who needs a long self-quarantine after flying (or road-tripping) from California. The good news, we’re told, is that with the drought of production there’s going to be added demand for finished movies. As my writing/producing partner Daniel Moya says, “Shutting down with four days left on an indie feature is an obvious heartbreaker, but it’s a choice that Dan and all of us would confidently make again given the circumstances. Most importantly, our extended 18½ family is safe and healthy and eager to finish what we’ve started.” On with the show!
Director Dan Mirvish’s last film was Bernard and Huey. He is also the cofounder of the Slamdance Film Festival and the author of The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking (Focal Press/Routledge). For more info on Dan and 18½, go to www.DanMirvish.com.